Friday, November 23, 2007

Hit me baby one more time

No, it's not a story about how Britney Spears has become rhyming slang for beers, but a link to different stories about the intelligence and education of young children.

In this report on the BBC website, researchers at Yale University claim to have discovered that babies show "social intelligence" - a pre-linguistic ability to judge others' intentions - by about 6 months of age.

As we're looking at Child Language Acquisition in AS classes at the moment, and considering different case studies like the wugs test, it's interesting to see how this experiment was designed to rule out other factors, but it's also interesting to see how far cognitive abilities can develop before language appears.

Here's an extract from the report on the BBC website:

Kiley Hamlin and colleagues at Yale University devised experiments to test whether babies aged six and 10 months were able to evaluate the behaviour of others. They used wooden toys of different shapes that were designed to appeal to babies.

The babies were sat on their parents' laps and shown a display representing a character trying to climb a hill.

The climbing character, which had eyes to make it human-like, was either knocked down the hill by an unhelpful character (a toy of a different shape and colour) or pushed up the hill by a helper cartoon figure (another shape and colour).

After watching the "puppet show" several times, each baby was presented with the helper and hinderer toys and asked to pick one.

All of the 12 six-month-old babies tested and 14 of the 16 10-month-olds reached out to touch the helper character rather than the anti-social one.

Further experiments were carried out to rule out other explanations for the behaviour - such as a preference for pushing up or down actions or the appearance of certain characters.

Part of the debate about language development concerns whether children's language develops alongside cognitive skills like a grasp of object permanence, relative size (seriation) and time. Some theorists have suggested that language comes after cognition - once a concept has been understood, the language to label it will follow - while others have suggested that the two develop alongside each other, with language labels helping children place concepts into mental categories more easily.

Behind it all lies a wider debate about the link between language and thought, which the psychologist Steven Pinker has explored in great depth in his latest book The Stuff of Thought.

A different article in yesterday's Guardian suggests that however clever babies of six months are, children of 5 and 6 are too young to be formally taught reading and that pushing children to read at too early an age can affect their confidence and later reading skills.

Children in British schools are taught phonics from the age of four or five and then more formal reading skills in Year 1, but critics argue that the British education system starts kids off too early compared to other European countries with higher literacy rates.

While you don't have to study children's reading and writing for our syllabus, it's a good area to investigate in your second year coursework.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

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